Monday, April 25, 2005

Around the World with "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

The flight to Korea lasted a full 24 hours, starting at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, Gateway to the Pacific, with stops at Oakland (where we arrived at 2am and found that everything in the airport was closed), Anchorage (where all the airport signs were in Japanese and it cost eight 1982 dollars for a Coke), and Narita (where the terminal was full, so they wouldn't let us off the plane). I started out sitting next to a seven-foot-tall Army MP, who explained that he was the shortest guy in his unit, stationed in the DMZ. "Everybody is _at least_ seven feet tall," he said. "The North Koreans have all their biggest guys up there, too." At some point during the flight he disappeared and was replaced by somebody's kid. There weren't many kids on the flight; must have been a GI's dependent.

What I remember most about Korea: The way it smelled. In the summer, the whole country smelled like rotting vegetables. (When we in-processed, we were told that the local farmers fertilized with human waste, which is why we were discouraged from eating fruits and vegetables that were bought on the local economy.) After it rained, the land smelled like an onion. In the winter, it smelled like the charcoal heaters people there used to heat their houses, which killed people if their floor happened to have cracks in it for the carbon monoxide to leak through. Koreans used to brag that only GIs and other weaklings were killed by the CO2; their own robust constitutions were strong enough to withstand it.

Another thing: There were no powerlines. And it looked as though the country people had terraced every possible inch of land for farming -- probably a necessity in a country whose terrain was so rugged. Some of the villages we passed on the highway from Seoul to Kunsan looked as though they had been there for a thousand years.

During in-processing, I asked the Social Actions officer if I could expect any flak from the local populace because of my name. The Japanese had occupied Korea during the '30s and '40s and committed many atrocities there. (The "mountain of skulls" outside the capital city of Seoul was the subject of local legend.) "Oh, no," he assured me. "They're completely over that now." For the next year, anytime I tried to phone for a base taxi, or cash a check at the NCO Club, the response was the same when they heard my name: "Yoooou not American. Yoooou Japanese man." Followed by the click of the phone hanging up or the cashier's cage window slamming shut. Basically any Korean aged 50 or over could speak Japanese, and they'd all walk up to me on the street and start yammering away in my ancestral tongue. "Sorry," I'd tell them. "American." It should have been obvious from the uniform I was wearing and the tape across my chest that read "U.S. Air Force," but apparently it wasn't.

Besides the local nationals, my appearance got me in trouble with another group at Kunsan: the Hawaiians. There were loads of Hawaii boys who'd volunteered for Korea, assuming that it'd be easy to get home from there. Not true: You needed an unrestricted Philippine visa, which could only be gotten from the Philippine consulate in Seoul, to catch a hop on any flight that was going through Clark Air Base in the P.I., even if you didn't plan on getting off the plane there. So these guys would wind up getting stuck on the West Coast and having to buy a commercial ticket back when they ran out of days of leave. (Back then you had to show that you had enough money to buy a ticket in case you couldn't get a military hop before they'd approve your leave from Korea.) Anyway, the Hawaiians were a big presence on "the Kun" (as in "ain't no slack on the Kun"), roasting pigs, swilling Primo beer, and strumming ukeleles any clear weekend when there wasn't an exercise on. They'd see me walking by and greet me: "Hey bradda. You one of me?" Their welcome lasted exactly as long as it took for me to open my mouth and my still-audible, although diluted, East Coast accent to slip out. They didn't like mainland Japanese-Americans. I don't know why. Back in World War II, the Hawaii boys that had served in the 442nd (the famous regiment of all Japanese-Americans) had called the mainlanders in their ranks "kotonks," supposedly because of the sound their heads made when they hit the floor.

The 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the Wolf Pack, was Robin Olds' and Chappie James' outfit from Vietnam. The year I was there, they were in the process of transitioning from Vietnam-era F-4 Phantoms to the new F-16 Fighting Falcons, which were built in Fort Worth by General Dynamics. They lost two aircraft in flight mishaps that year, and Wolf One, the wing commander, who didn't want to be the first commander of the 8th TFW not to win his brigadier general's star out of the assignment, extended his tour and requested an out-of-cycle Operational Readiness Inspection. He used to drive around in a clapped-out '66 Oldsmobile painted with what was supposedly very expensive F-16 paint. Whenever an exercise kicked off, Armed Forces Radio and the Giant Voice speakers positioned around the base would play the "William Tell Overture." As a result, I hate the fucking "William Tell Overture" and still can't stand to hear it, over 20 years later.

The funny thing was, the Koreans always knew when we were going on alert before we did, either because some smart boy from the plans shop let the exercise dates slip to his yobo (Korean girlfriend) or because they found the dates in the unclassified trash that the base sent out for recycling. Once, when I had a weekend off and five dollars in my pocket (which happened exactly twice during my tour -- partly because I took a $50 allotment and sent the rest of my pay home to mama, partly because we were on alert 150 days out of my just-over a year on station), I rode the bus up to Osan to gawk at all the American kids (because there were command-sponsored dependents there) and big American cars, eat shitty pizza at a "Straw Hat Pizza" that tasted like it was made from real straw hats, and order a leather jacket from one of the countless tailor shops outside the main gate.

"Where you stationed?" the guy at the tailor shop asked me.

"Kunsan," I replied.

"I am sorry," he said. For some reason, whenever you told Koreans anywhere else in the country that you were stationed at the Kun, they always said "I am sorry."

"When you come back?" he wanted to know.

"Two weeks," I said.

He shook his head. "I don't think so."

Two weeks later, the alert horn went of at exactly 0605, the same time it always did, and we stayed on alert for 10 days.

There was a comforting predictability to the way they ran exercises at the Kun. The horn always went off at exactly 0605. Once I figured this out, on days when there was rumored to be an exercise kicking off, I'd rise early, put on my uniform, and go to the chow hall without shaving to eat breakfast. That way, when the horn blew, I could make it to my office with the appropriate "sense of urgency" (e.g., at the run) without having to go hungry; stopping enroute to work to shave most definitely did _not_ demonstrate the proper "sense of urgency." On Super Bowl Sunday 1983, Armed Forces Korea Network was proud to broadcast the game at the same time as it was played "back in the world." Five minutes after kickoff, the horn went off and we were on alert for a week. It sucked, but it was kind of reassuring in a way: You knew that no matter what the circumstances, Wolf One was going to do anything he could to fuck up your entire day.

We were on alert a lot because while an armistice had been declared back in 1953, there had never been a peace treaty ending the Korean War. There were always flare-ups along the DMZ, such as the "tree-chopping incident" back in 1976, when North Korean troops had murdered an American soldier there. While I was there, in December 1982, a trooper from the 2nd Infantry Division supposedly left his post in the DMZ and defected to North Korea. You wouldn't have heard about most of the shit back Stateside, though, unless you read Pacific Stars & Stripes. We were always getting briefings about sappers they shot coming in from the Yellow Sea in rubber boats, with ROK (acronym for Korea, Republic of -- our nominal allies and hosts) uniforms and maps of all the American bases, or the tunnel the North Koreans were supposedly building under the DMZ. North Korea, we were told, had the world's 40th largest population and its eighth largest standing army, with more heavy artillery than either us or the Soviet Union. In 1950, it took them three weeks to seize all of South Korea from the DMZ down to the southern seaport town of Pusan before Douglas McArthur landed at Inchon and kicked their asses all the way back to the Red Chinese border (at which point the Chinese intervened and proceeded to kick our asses all the way back to the 48th parallel).

"You guys are here as a tripwire," the intel briefer at orientation said. "That means you're here so if North Korea attacks, enough of you will die to get the folks back Stateside pissed off enough to go to war." We heard stories about mass hangings of Americans at Kunsan back in 1950. The official history of the base denies it: "Records are scarce pertaining to Kunsan in the early days of the war," the historian writes, "but evidence seems to indicate that there were no Americans present when the North Koreans occupied the base. As mentioned, the base contained at most a small detachment at the outbreak of the war, if in fact there was a United States presence at the time. If there were Americans at Kunsan, they likely pulled back to the Pusan Perimeter before the North Korean People's Army arrived." It might have been bullshit, but it definitely got your attention, regardless.

At the time, the Air Force and the Army were in the process of negotiating who was going to be responsible for air base ground defense and perimeter security, so lots of guys who'd been spending the winters in trailers up in the missile fields were having to go through infantry training at Camp Bulliss, Texas, on their way to Korea. After years of such a sedentary lifestyle (the Air Force was the only service that didn't include physical conditioning as part of everybody's normal duty day), a lot of these guys weren't up to the physical demands of the training, and they washed out, but that didn't defer them from their assignment. Kunsan had been built by the Japanese back in the '30s, and there were a lot of fixed emplacements, all facing out toward the Yellow Sea. My friend Sergeant Clemens was responsible for ringing the base with new fighting positions, minefields and so forth to protect the base against an attack from outside. Later on, the Air Force would get more into the use of fences with electronic sensing equipment and "15-and-5" response forces (having a 15-man fireteam that could respond anywhere on the perimeter in five minutes). For the time being, everyone was caught up in playing soldier, digging bunkers and setting up interlocking fields of fire.

In 1982, while our pilots were transitioning to the state-of-the-art F-16, the ROK air force was still flying Korean War-vintage F-86s. I asked an old aircraft maintenance NCO why that was and he said, "Because if we sold them F-16s, those crazy bastards would want to go north and start some shit." The ROKs were like the Irish of the Pacific, only less humorous -- hard drinking and bellicose. Their army's Capital Division had fought in Vietnam, where it gained a reputation for liking to kill Vietnamese. Supposedly it was the most rank-heavy outfit in the ROK army, because they got a bonus for volunteering to go to Nam, so all the officers and senior NCOs wanted a piece of the action. Because I never received host-nation officer identification training worthy of the name, I spent a year saluting grizzled old ROK NCOs (who grunted and spat in disgust by way of reply) and waving to downy-cheeked ROK junior officers, who bemusedly waved back. For their own troops, both of those subspecies held the power of life and death. Kunsan was a training base for ROK reservists, and we'd see their NCOs beating the shit out of them as they ran around the base. Right before I arrived in-country, the ROKs at Kunsan had their operational readiness inspection, and some Korean sentry supposedly got shot on the spot for falling asleep on duty. They didn't even wake him up. They just told the American who was working the gate with him to take a smoke break, then blew the kid's brains out right where he sat. They said that's what would have happened if the enemy had come, and they needed to make an example.

Relations between GIs and the local populace were interesting. People who were never there don't realize how much of a colonial power America was in Asia as late as the '80s. There were a lot of times during my year in Korea when I felt ashamed to be an American. Basically, the Koreans thought that all Americans were drunken pigs, while a lot of GIs thought that all Korean men were thieves and all Korean women were whores. Junior enlisted troops got spoiled having houseboys to make their beds, do their laundry, and shine their boots. (Mine stole all of my socks and underwear when I went home on leave over Christmas.) And there was definitely prostitution going on in Silvertown aka "A-Town" and Kunsan City (a former Kunsanite has an extensive and well-researched history on his website), which command dealt with by basically looking the other way.

As part of my duties as the cop squadron's orderly room clerk, I got to visit Bioenvironmental Health once a month to check out the stats for the girls in all the clubs, and draw three boxes of condoms: one for issue to the new guys in the squadron, one for the town patrol, and one for the first sergeant. No doubt about it: The wing commander definitely had all the justification he needed to put all the clubs off-limits, but then he would have had a mutiny on his hands. Toward the end of my tour, one of the young guys came to see me, all excited because he'd gotten orders to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. "I'm gonna get me a _showgirl_," he said. I had to explain to him that there was no $20 short-time back in "the world." Going from mom's house to Uncle's house to mamasan's house definitely gave some of those young boys a distorted view of what one-on-one was all about. Thus, you'd have the spectacle of some newly-arrived teenager, bringing his "girlfriend" to the barracks to "introduce" her to his friends, all of whom had to do a good job of acting as if they didn't already "know" her, in the Biblical sense. Or guys like the one who used to send his parents and fiancee pictures of him with his Korean girlfriend, then wondered why he didn't get any mail from home.

Lots of GIs got used to the lifestyle. There were plenty of old heads who'd been in Asia for a decade or more and were hoping Thailand would open up again. Then 314th Air Division got a commander who was a born-again Christian and didn't want his troops "going native." He instituted a rule that you could only extend in-country for a maximum of three years. I knew a couple of lifers with 19 years in the service who owned property and supported large Korean extended families. They'd planned to retire at the Kun, but when the rule change came down, they both wound up having to rotate back Stateside. One of them even had Strom Thurmond on his side. No matter.

The barracks the junior enlisted stayed in had actually been broken down and transported out of Thailand when the 8th TFW unassed from there back in the mid-'70s. The rooms had fans built into the walls that we had to cover with plastic trash bags when the winter came. Otherwise, it'd snow into your room. I remember waking up a couple of times with snow on my pillow. (Winter on the Kun was brutal: When that wind started howling off the Yellow Sea, if you were smiling when you walked outside, you'd be smiling all day long.) The NCOs had slightly more upscale accommodations. The barracks where I stayed was home to guys from a bunch of different units: cops, civil engineers, flightline maintenance from the Aircraft Generation Squadron. We broke so many TVs that finally the first sergeant didn't have a replacement to give us, so we got a microwave oven instead. It took the guys in the dayroom weeks to figure out that you couldn't change the channels on it. They couldn't understand why the same show was always on: a bunch of guys in their underwear, sitting around eating "bag nasties," greasy fried chicken dinners from the chow hall.

My first roommate was a kid from Oklahoma named Sprinkles. He looked like he was about 12 years old. He used to annoy the fuck out of me by coming in with his friends after I was asleep and turning on the light, which was about three inches from my face. He used to build model airplanes and smash them to pieces against his locker with big rubber bands. One day I came back from the latrine and found him beating his clock radio on the floor. I paid a visit to the dorm manager, Doc Holliday, to see about getting out of the room. Holliday was a permanently-decertified cop from Phoenix. He had a fake divinity degree from the Cosmic Masters Church of Phoenix that he'd gotten by sending money to an address he saw in the Rolling Stone classified ads. He had the distinction of having received a one-sentence Airman Performance Report from our squadron first sergeant: "Senior Airman Holliday performs many of his duties when instructed to by the first sergeant." (The first sergeant was a former chaplain's assistant who spent three months of his one-year tour TDY with the base women's basketball team. The rest of the time, he occupied himself crusading to be allowed to wear a security policeman's black beret, even though he wasn't really a cop.) Doc Holliday was an operator. He'd brought his wife over from the States, even though there were no command-sponsored dependents on Kunsan. He'd just keep her in an empty room in one of the three barracks he managed for the squadron. I was surprised when he suggested I simply room with him.

"I'm the perfect roommate," he said. "I'm never there."

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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